I realised quite a while ago that my web reading habits are very different from most others.
- My primary source of web reading is my feed reader, still. And unlike how most seem to use feed readers, I mostly follow sites that are sporadically updated. About twenty updates roughly on a daily basis. The remaining 1600 feeds update once a month, or even only a couple of times a year.
- The theory is that those who post rarely generally only post when they have something really interesting to say, while the rest (like me with my link blog) is posting out of habit.
- I also tend to follow all of the links in an article or a post. And if those are interesting, I’ll follow the links there as well. On a good day, my entire breakfast reading time is sucked up by following down an interesting thread of links.
- Following links is essential if you enjoy finding new papers. People never link to PDFs directly in a feed and rarely from social media. But they will link to a PDF in the text of a blog post.
- Finally, I have a tendency to reread old blog posts because some of them are genuinely great.
Daniel Cook’s Lost Garden is one of the best resources on game design theory and UX design you can find. I enjoy revisiting Christopher Allen’s thoughts on social software and collaboration on his blog Life With Alacrity. Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users is a revolutionary read every time I revisit it. Her book is amazing too but there is just something about a good blog that I genuinely love. A good blog has bite-sized posts mixed in with weightier ones. It carries with it a slice of the time it arrived in: a snapshot of contemporary culture. It reflects the author’s social network through links, quotes, and other references.
Most of those links are dead now, mind you. I know because I also always follow links when I reread an old post.
The good blogs disappear regularly too. I’ll have an urge to dig up an old blog I haven’t read in years only to find it gone. Sometimes entire authors seem to get cleaned off the face of the web. Tim O’Reilly, for example, one of the most influential thinkers and commentators on the web and tech, used to be a prolific blogger but most of those links are now broken, his blog posts scrubbed.
Another important aspect of habitually re-reading old blogs is reevaluation. How do a person’s ideas and arguments age? Dismissing the stuff that was obviously garbage when new (Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, for example) it’s surprising how often your first reaction to a blog post or an idea is coloured by your community. You may think that you are a bastion of independent thinking but if your immediate community generally views Kevin Kelly in a positive light, odds are that your first reaction to his nonsense is that it, well, isn’t nonsense.
For example, his 1000 true fans essay has become web canon and you’ve almost certainly seen people link to it as an accurate observation of how modern media works. Except it gets almost everything about modern web media wrong where the dominant rule is the Matthew Effect: anybody who reaches 1000 fans and doesn’t get absolutely trashed by fandom toxicity, community management, or screwed over by payment providers, will end up with 10 000 fans, and then 100 000 fans. The rich get richer while the rest are stuck at 300 supporters, all of whom are also creators shuffling around the money they get from their 300 supporters.
With web-scale, moderate web media successes will either fade, burn out, or grow to become big successes. Almost all of the money is in the short head of the curve or in being a platform nickle-and-diming the hundreds of thousands who are earning next to nothing in the actual long tail.
On the other hand, if your immediate community still remembers his hyping up of the dot-com bubble or his declaration that the browser was dead in 1997 then odds are that any given link to his work will be framed in qualifiers and scepticism.
And your reading will be harsher for it.
One of the writers whose writing was always framed very harshly by the tech community back in the mid-to-late 2000s (2005-2010) at least, was Nicholas Carr. At the time, it seemed that everybody, from moderate sceptics to zealous tech-boosters, just hated everything he wrote. So, even if you were predisposed to being critical of the state of the web, you read him with scepticism.
However, re-reading him years later, with the benefit of hindsight, and a lot of it begins to look just plain prescient.
Once you consider that Web 2.0 is the initial seed for the modern web and modern social media, these observations start to look quite interesting.
Tech has suffered from a hype cycle for the longest time. A proposed innovation gets hyped up to the sky until it either doesn’t pan out or until it becomes too mundane to interest tech’s boosters. Criticism from outside of tech is easily handled. Those people don’t ‘get’ it (whatever the ‘it’ is). They are jealous of the success of the tech industry.
People in tech, software especially, reserve a particular animosity towards criticisms that come from ‘inside the house’, from people who know tech, understand it, have even been a part of implementing it, and aren’t happy about where it has been going. Nicholas Carr had been writing about tech for years in 2004. He was supposed to be ‘one of us’. Then as now, when somebody like Carr dares prick one of tech’s bubbles, the response is almost feral.
All of a sudden, the self-labelled ‘rational, independent thinkers’ start behaving like tantrum-throwing toddlers who grasp at anything and everything as an excuse to perpetuate the tantrum. A single mention of the people responsible for something in tech gets dismissed as an ad hominem attack. Straightforward hypothetical scenarios drawn from experience (and abstracted to protect those involved) get dismissed as straw men.
And men, always men, who regularly boast about their reasoning skills become very, very angry. Especially if the critic is a woman. Not only would she be risking her career but also her very safety as stalking and physical threats are far too common for women who dare draw attention to tech’s dysfunction.
This has been happening for a while. It happened during the dot-com bubble. Naysayers were dismissed out of hand. It happened in 2004 when the foundation of modern tech’s toxic influence on culture, media, politics and society were first laid down with Web 2.0 and people started to notice the damage.
The effect of social media, the consolidation of media, the gig economy, we were warned about it all.
The warnings weren’t even ignored. We don’t have the excuse of ignorance. Anybody who was paying any attention to tech knew about these warnings and actively argued against them.
All of the tech punditry reacted with either outrage or just outright condescending dismissal.
It was pretty easy to fall in with the anger. All of your idols—role models—talked about Carr and his fellow critics either explicitly as adversaries, as charlatans, or as failures trying to blame others for their inadequacies.
But they were right, weren’t they? I mean, once you step back and look at the big picture, you see that they were largely right?
How come people like Kevin Kelly are still venerated as thinkers? Why were Carr and Lanier mocked and dismissed as burnt out charlatans until they actually burned out? Pretty much everything the former group said has been wrong or correct but harmful. Most of the critiques made by the latter hit the proverbial nail on the head. Even the ones they got wrong look reasonable with hindsight.
Web 2.0 is the preamble to the current rise of disinformation, extremism, and fascism. Much like the dot-com bubble was the preamble to the financial bubble that popped in 2008.
You can draw a direct line between what tech made in 2004-2008 to the current state of the world.
Yet, we in tech and software development still venerate the tech elite, the billionaires, the VCs even though they have been wrong about everything that actually mattered.
And venerate is the only word that accurately describes this worship. From a 2005 Tim O’Reilly bio:
Salvation was at hand, and the critics threatened that rapture. The tech scene in 2004 onwards behaved much like the reactionary proto-fascists responded when Trump was elected: we were about to be saved, and any form of criticism threatened that salvation.
In both cases, ‘we’ meant ‘people who look like me’.
Even when the observations of these idols of tech were correct, they still utterly failed to consider the actual consequences of what they were observing until it was too late.
He was right about the popularisation of media production and writing. It became something everybody does. He was wrong about blogs, but that was a blind spot common to everybody at the time.
Almost. Nicholas Carr pointed out a few months later how much of the blogging/web media boom seemed to be cheap spam:
Kevin Kelly and his ilk were wrong about the likely consequences of this process. Whereas Nicholas Carr, writing in response to Kevin Kelly’s vision:
The economics of web media ends up restricting choice. Most of what we read is now produced by amateurs or the financially independent elite. Want to learn about web development? Next to nothing that’s available is written by actual technical writers or experienced educational writers. Want to read about local politics, about what’s happening outside of a major metropolitan area? Good luck finding anything of substance. Instead of a newspaper in every town, we now have five major news outlets per country. If we’re lucky. Five major news outlet per language if we’re unlucky. The rest of what passes as news are just opinion columnists and quick rewrites of wire service news.
Most companies, authors, individuals can’t subsist on free, even with advertising. The web is built on the backs of our free work.
Om Malik, responding to and concurring with Carr’s amorality essay:
I’m convinced this is one of the big reasons behind the current state of web development. Why CSS and platform APIs are so unpopular. Why JS payloads on sites seem to be growing exponentially and growing less and less usable on mobile phones.
When I got my start in web development, you could find several different detailed, well-written, well-structured book on every major part of the stack. You paid for it because the only alternative was trial and error.
Now, web dev education is free web content and increasingly dominated by grifters, even offline. Even when web dev educational writing is being made sincerely and with ambition, it’s still predominantly amateurs, in the sense that it’s done as a sideline by people who aren’t experienced educators.
MDN is great, but it can’t compare with the depth you get with a detailed book on a single subject. How many today hate to use CSS because they learned it from free sources who keep reusing the same explanations and same metaphors they first read in books on CSS 1 and CSS 2? How many prefer React over DOM APIs primarily because Facebook can invest in documentation while MDN, the last bastion of platform documentation, cuts back on staff? Web dev education looks broken at the moment.
There’s even a Nicholas Carr post for that as well (though, language warning, I guess):
Carr and others, like Jaron Lanier, raised the alarm about where things were heading over fifteen years ago and their concerns have come true. They may have gotten some of the details wrong, but the overall picture? On the nose. Instead of decentralising, the atomising force that is the web subsequently led to a new, much greater, consolidation:
Some, like Jaron Lanier, changed sides once they began to see where things were going.
Which was in the early 2000s. Which was when the rest of the punditry should have seen the harm that was beginning to accumulate.
I don’t blame VCs or startup founders who got rich for conning us about the glorious future of the web. They are grifters—con artists—and when you fall for a scam, it’s on you to pick yourself up and learn from it.
We didn’t. We the developers who are the foot soldiers in the strip-mining that is modern tech keep picking ourselves up after every disaster, bubble pop, burn out, and keep helping the grifters grift.
That’s partly because of intellectuals like Kevin Kelly, who never passed up on an opportunity to evangelise the web and tech, even though they didn’t stand to make millions off it like the hustlers. They kept building the web back up as a saviour after every collapse, every bubble pop, every scandal. Partly it’s on us for constantly venerating billionaires and wannabe billionaires for looting the society the rest of us live in.
It’s time that we stop venerating the hustlers, the looters, the leaders of the tech-rapture cult, and realise, much like with the climate crisis, that things are actually, truly, quite horrible and that it’s on us to fix it before it ruins everything for the coming generations.
I don’t have a clue. I just know that we’re at least fifteen years behind the curve.
Further Nicholas Carr reading
He doesn’t get everything right, but even when he’s wrong, his observations tend to be interesting.
The winner-takes-all nature of most web media business models means that subscription sites are almost certainly going to consolidate or, as with Patreon, end up being a closed loop of money: most of the subscribers are also publishers, the money gets pushed back and forth, ever-dwindling due to Patreon’s transaction cut.
Yanis Varoufakis made much the same observation last month: Techno-Feudalism Is Taking Over. Before and after takes on the rise of techno-feudalism.
“Juicing the web” points out, in 2005, that AJAX (the precursor to Single Page Apps) is key to the shift of software tools to the web.
On building tech with poor data sources.
On how the web promotes extremism and polarization:
On how traditional software will get replaced with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): The slow death of traditional software (2005).